When I Was A Child
Marilynne Robinson is an eloquent polemicist. I nod in agreement with her prose even as I half wonder over the target of her attacks. Every essay in her new collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, asserts the mystery of divine creation and admits no place for the reductive force of modern “scientific” atheism. Amongst other things, she redefines Calvinism, offers a contrarian view of the strictures of Mosaic law, and dispels Eastern establishment condescension towards a Western upbringing. Many of her paragraphs offer sentences that might serve as “points for meditation.” My subject here is human nature, which I will define for these purposes as the difference between a world in which there is a human presence and one in which there are no creatures more like us than the apes. Marilynne Robinson, much like her narrator, Rev. John Ames, in Gilead, is a superb monologist.
Her essay, “Imagination and Community,” won me over in its first paragraph. “Over the years I have collected so many books that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly, I wonder how many of them I ever will read. That has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books.”
Here I found a declaration that confirmed in me the joy of buying and possessing books: as if in a purchase one acquired not just the substance of the book but established an intimacy with its author and its characters. Robinson is not writing about collecting or acquisitive greed, but community; in the filling of bookshelves with volumes we are expanding our connections to others. “I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” A little later she goes on to say: “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.”
I puzzled over this quotation: “We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself.” All the force of this assertion lies in “articulable” for language, she argues, is the great communal enterprise; in making articulate the imagination we build community in our lives: “the more generous scale at which the imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be.” What Robinson doesn’t work out is the relationship of the community of language users to “reality itself.” Is she asserting that we make sense of the world we perceive only in the functioning of our language? If so, this is a profound rhetorical assertion: her essays then, in welcoming us into her extended community, seek to establish a sense of reality by articulation of her vision. These essays, as they are exercises in the imagination, determinedly, are “real” refusals to reduce the human to the material. Her great novels, Housekeeping, Home, and Gilead, do this more so. To understand writing, fiction and essays both, in this way is to understand language sacramentally – an outward sign of the conferring of grace
In Gilead, John Ames reflects on his role as preacher. He says, “A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation . . . There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought – the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.” So they are, the essays in When I Was a Child I Read Books.